Nonfiction

Itaewon


It was Saturday night and just about that time when drunkenness yields to lonesomeness and all platonic camaraderie is worthless. I lost two buddies to the same Vietnamese prostitute; an hour later I lost some female cronies to a gay disco they hadn’t been to in ages. There was no trouble saying goodnight. I wasn’t in the mood to humor the novelty of being straight in a gay nightclub and headed vaguely in the direction of a half-remembered hookah bar where the bartender sold hash.

I bumped into a reasonable proposition on Hooker Hill, waist of a wasp, twenty-one if my conscience was lucky. Her body was a shrine, sacredly tight and lithe, but her face had aged one week for every trick she’d turned. We linked arms and weaved through channels of nomadic partygoers, down winding reeking alleys where pimping Italians and leering Nigerians hovered in blackened doorways and pedaled bad drugs and deranged sex. Itaewon, Korea. A swollen grab-bag of bouncers, gangsters, hustlers, lady-boys, deadbeat English teachers and boozebag soldiers; the kind of moral shitshow that could’ve only come about as a response to the proximity and behavior of American military. Anything that could satisfy lust, greed or pride was bombarded at you from all directions in all kinds of scintillating, bargain-basement arrangements. In this place my mind had easily welded to twisted appetites, and neon tastes I never thought my stomach would crave, fantasies I never believed would lodge themselves in seed form in my thoughts, had grown strong in the care of constant liquor and boredom, till at last my will was toppled, my mind numbed by the glimmering lures of illicit experience, and all debauchery became as unusual as a blue car. It’d be easier to bring the dinosaurs back to life than to resurrect the thrill of a first transgression, yet every weekend I came back and probed the same humdrum depravities, a junkie for bland taboo, a seeker of variation.

The brothel was three floors under a gimbap diner, fumigated with incense and softly twanging with Arabian mood music. Its main lounge was matted with thick rugs and furbished with faux tapestries of ancient big-nippled working women lazing in royal pleasure chambers. We shot tequila at the bar. She sent text messages between rounds and pointed to the girls with dirty pussies who charged too much. Around little tables homely North American men, unsure and full of nervous excitement, sat on floor pillows and chatted up their girls over beers and simpleton English, while their uncomprehending girls smiled at the remedial come-ons and interjected encouraging giggles. Preludes and pretenses are no requisite for whoring, but they make it feel nicer, and as always at immorality’s beginning I had no problem being there, performing life in a way that was nothing like my father’s, no problem being anything else, even something less, besides a mid-pay executive trained to wolfishly inhale his lunch so that he might quicker return to a batch of papers and a ruck of pushy emails.

Soon it was the old familiar condition. Half-trashed and wobbly, moving down a corridor of private rooms and lap dance stalls. In one stall an apish young marine, a kind of buzz-cut Alabamian, sat drop-jawed and slouched, vacuously agape in a perfect pre-fuck trance while a girl no older than a Nickelodeon starlet swirled her pelvis around his crotch, topless and inattentive, her eyes trained to a spot above his head. Inside her studio I waited by the door while she found the Fabreeze and sprayed the bed with alarming meticulousness, the whole room bare of furnishings except for a dresser, the oxygen laden with a perfume heavy as dust, though not strong enough to bury the funk of man sweat and Marlboros. No facilities, no décor, no bathroom. Only a mattress lumped on the floor, the sheets printed with smiling racecars, and pieces of washed laundry, damp and crinkled, draped on anything that would allow them to dry in the muggy ambiance. My interest in anything fell off a cliff. She made a fist and gave the jerk-off gesture, put the fist to her mouth and puffed one cheek. I confirmed the prices and felt mildly weepy. Kleenex and condom boxes sitting on the dresser. A strap-on dildo and some kind of harness contraption hanging on the door. What interesting person could ever be aroused by this?

It was getting harder to believe, but once a girl had actually written me love letters, had found something so indispensable about my companionship that even when our time zones occupied different hemispheres she’d kept me dead-centered in her heartsight. Each letter containing the story behind a cute memory of us together and a Polaroid of her in the pangs of a dreadful adolescence, when she’d struggled through a phase so severe in its ugly-ducklingness that it ruined her adulthood with neediness; years when she’d been teased by the pretty girls and overlooked by the popular boys because of her weight and glasses and obedient fear of God; because she loved me so much she wanted to expose everything about her, especially the painful things. The painful things were her hopes disguised, given to me in awkward pictures and loving retrospections written in big loopy letters on violet stationary attached with stickers of cartoon fruits wearing sunglasses, every letter signed at the bottom with the word love written out in capital letters, the kind of enraptured affection insubstantial men morosely absorb and then disregard because it speaks to something so incorrectly fascinated with the nothingness of them.

I lay down without taking off my pants. The less I did the more I could imagine she was someone who wanted to be there. She knelt at my side like a field medic, took apart my jeans and put me business-like in her mouth. A stiff breath, a weak shot to the moon, and I paid her. Moments before, having stripped to her underwear with total procedural aloofness, she had turned in a cold tight circle for my money’s worth, her lips pressed together, her hair pulled back in a bun, and modeled all her amazing features without sensuality. The absence depressed me and prickled the urge to fill the empty spirit of our intimacy. There was no rush as long as money changed hands. I told her to lie close and talk of something fun. Her English was awful and clear. In so many attempts it explained how she swabbed her vagina with vinegar to keep it tight, how she hated high heels but loved the way they made her legs look. Her dreams brimmed with cosmetic enhancements. She spoke of a new surgery that rounded the eyes of Asian women and made them more western. She’d saved a thousand dollars already. Two thousand more and she could afford the upgrade. Then she’d go to America and get something back for her trade. She asked about Las Vegas and I told her what I knew and some things I didn’t. In the mind of every poor Asian girl there is a famous western city waiting to make them happy, and Las Vegas was in the mind of this one. She wanted to know about the casinos and the gorgeous whores who roamed the blinking Strip and shook their bouncy chests over rollicking craps tables; the glamorous working girls who cruised the neon latenight in the front seats of Porsches and jiggled to fresh hip-hop beats through the sky roofs of limousines. The pretty, busty, color-eyed strippers who partied in the best clubs, fucked in the best hotels, and got treated to the best nightlife. “They’re not that pretty,” I lied, but she was the authority on the matter. We lay together and she explained it.

In Las Vegas whores very beautiful but no one call them whores. Honest business find you and give nice dress and phone for man to call. The man call private for you, you not on street every people look at you and say bad thing. You stay home and watch TV and he call polite like he you boyfriend and ask you on nice date. Tell you nice place for meet like hotel, but you not fuck only soon. He take you rich party first and every people dress nice with jewelry and pretty drink. Maybe his car he put arm around you. Not hide you or say no sit tall because people see you. In mean voice! He proud people see you and friends think jealous and wish they call you and give you fun. And you get own rule like yes condom and no hit, because nice business own you now and send police because you real woman. And you tell man no thing in ass because it pain and make red toilet tomorrow. In Las Vegas whores not treat like toilet and man call you baby and sweetie and always make kiss and gift like real wife.

She turned toward the edge of the bed and slid remotely inside her thoughts, hugging herself as though chilled. The next erection was already a thousand emotional miles away, but otherwise wholly impeded by her wall of introspection and the river of mattress running icily between us. There was no way around it. My best shot was to find a box of money and dispense myself continuously. Let travel substitute for a life’s purpose, destinations for goals. Thoroughly educated, utterly unlearned, I knew fat squat about how the world operated. Nothing about economics, science or business; nothing about retail, tools or computers. It was Boston, a city diseased to its deepest marrow with sports and boredom, where I started drinking alone, my apartment so damp and ill-heated that I wore my thickest coat the entire winter, even to bed. The rain getting through the window one evening and soaking all my books. I’d stood them neatly on the window ledge, spines outward so people on the street would know that not everyone in that shitty Bridgewater slum would drape their windows with Tom Brady jerseys or smear their panes with anti-Yankee bumperstickers. A grown man crying, at twenty-seven years old, at the sight of thousands of sopping pages, the wise inks hopelessly bled, pages that had mostly duped and confused me and ripped my life away, but they were things I’d finished and I loved them for that. And how crabbed and ugly America seemed without them. How well I’d put that misery to my brain and blown myself to Korea and an ex-pat community congealed from the pus and gunk of western civilization. The bounty jumpers, the transient pervs, the balding Asian-bride seekers, the gutless intellectuals, the gap-year suburbanites too young to truly befriend and too obnoxious to screw. Dromomania, they call it. The inoperable belief that what is wrong with your life is the result of where you aren’t. A new culture to awaken the mind, a new country to revive the spark, a new ethnicity of girl to lengthen the crotch, and as the arrivals and departures accumulate it becomes a thing of quiet terror to know that you are not at all sure where you are supposed to get off for good, or whether that stop has already passed.

The walls were unbearably thin. In the next room a girl begat the mother of all fake orgasms, an opera of ecstasy squeal to hurry the john’s climax and get him the hell over with. The performance, so loaded with zero genuine pleasure, so derived from professional habit, dropped my mood like a suicide jumper, and when the poor schmoe made his sharp, guttural groan I felt the joke and falseness of my own patronage and went mean with embarrassment. I sat up and told her I would not kiss her on the mouth, proclaimed in a cruel emotional voice that there was at least that much poetry left in me, that her lips were just a pair of tools, used for sliding and collapsing around various girths. She understood everything but my exact words, didn’t care. She was going to Vegas where I and every doofus of my ilk would disappear into a generic lump of clods mawkishly recalled during hotel pillow-talk as Richard Gere hugged her softly in his arms, just hours after whirling her around a lavish soiree and petting her hand beside the Bellagio Fountains as they soared into the desert heavens, glowing golden and white.

After a while my limpness made her awkward and we got under the sheets and watched pop videos on her cell phone, bodies untouching. When my time ran out she asked me to leave without opening her mouth, gathering my underwear and jeans and Fabreezing my side of the bed while I put them on. Later on the street, watching two drunk marines knock the shit out of each other in front of a discotheque, I couldn’t imagine one place in the world where I’d be anywhere but here, and caught the last train home and passed out in my seat, waking only at the end of the line, long after I’d missed my station.

timothy marsh Timothy L Marsh is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University, Wales. His work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Barrelhouse, and The Evansville Review, among others. Recent honours include writing fellowships from the Can Serrat International Art Center, the CAMAC Centre d’ Art, and a Tennessee Williams Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. His work has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Web anthologies.